By Rachel Andersson

The introduction of free school meals in September 2014 for all infants created a dilemma for many primary schools in England.  The issue wasn’t the reasoning behind the policy, but the practical implications of implementing it, particularly for small schools.  Many small schools had stopped on-site catering some years before and the equipment had long since been removed.  Now, suddenly, they were required by law to provide meals for a much larger number of children and had to find a cost-effective way to do so.

“Transitional” funding for small schools (defined at having fewer than 150 pupils) was available initially, amounting to just £3,000 per school in 2014­–15. It is unclear whether it was ever intended that this funding would continue indefinitely.  According to the original government guidance, the grant was for “one year only” and could “be spent as schools [chose] in support of their implementation of the policy, including for the purpose of improving kitchen or dining equipment.”  However, additional funding was, in fact, made available in 2015–16 as well, this time to the tune of £2,300 per small school, though it was described as “a small schools allocation” given in addition to the basic funding allocated to all schools.

This additional funding was vital for small schools, which face considerably higher costs per meal than do their larger counterparts because they don’t benefit from any of the economies of scale — hence the furor when in February 2016 it became apparent that the additional funding had been withdrawn.

“The Food Programme”, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on July 11, 2016, gives a fascinating insight into the realities small schools faced when implementing this legislation.  In some cases, the “transitional” funding enabled schools to bridge the gap between the real cost of producing each meal and the notional cost of £2.30 per meal covered by the Government’s “basic” funding allocation. While some small schools probably did use the additional funding to update their facilities, for many the production of meals on site was simply unfeasible.  Therefore, more imaginative solutions to the “problem” of feeding their pupils were required.  Those solutions not infrequently involve ongoing costs, so the withdrawal of the small schools’ allocation is hugely problematic.

Free school meals for primary years 1–3 were introduced in Scotland in January 2015, but as the local authorities still oversee the schools’ catering service there, schools are automatically able to benefit from the economies of scale and don’t have to shop around for the most cost-effective deal. In England, however, where such provision has been devolved, head teachers have been left to devise individualised solutions for their own schools.

For small schools that are part of a larger academy group, it may be possible to buy in meals from one of the other larger member schools.  This may allow the small school to share in the economies of scale in terms of the costs of ingredients and of preparing the food, but the small school will still face additional costs to transport the meals to the school and also to handle the washing-up.

Some head teachers in small rural schools have been forced to adopt a more entrepreneurial approach.  In one small school near Lostwithiel in Cornwall, a cook is shared with other schools in the academy group.  Some meals are prepared on site using ingredients obtained locally, and the school is just starting to provide a take-away service to locals in order to bring in extra income.

Another small school in Cumbria has taken this approach a stage further.  They are not part of an academy group, so they can’t take advantage of shared resources.  The additional funding allows them to buy in their meals from Monday to Thursday, but on Fridays they have had to find an alternative, more economical solution. On a Friday morning, all the children in Key Stage 2 work with a governor, who is a trained cook, to prepare a two-course meal for the rest of the school.  They then also invite members of the local community to join them, and are, in fact, set up as a registered restaurant.

Apart from the fact that selling lunches provides much-needed income, there are additional benefits to the schools and their local communities as the links between the two are strengthened. Of course, the children also benefit from learning about how to grow and prepare their own food.

In striving to balance budgets, head teachers are finding themselves in a position where they must imagine increasingly-creative solutions to the problem of meeting their legal – and moral – obligations.  The importance of ensuring that children eat healthily is indisputable given its impact not just on their ability to learn but on their lifelong health.

But should head teachers have to focus their energies on pursuing entrepreneurial activities that are, frankly, beyond their remit? Of course, it could be argued that these activities are a by-product of the need to meet an obligation that has a direct impact on children’s education.  And there may be unexpected tangential benefits to the children arising from their involvement in these activities.  For example, the Key Stage 2 children at the school in Cumbria are gaining invaluable first-hand experience rarely available to children their age as they learn about running a restaurant. But surely it would be better for the head teachers to be able to focus directly on their core areas of concern and for such enrichment to arise because of choice, rather than necessity.